Spare Rib: Looking back from 2015

What is the relevance and significance of Spare Rib today? Haven’t feminists won all the debates and campaigns, at least in theory and in law, anyway? Zoe Williams looks at the legacy of Spare Rib for today’s women and men.

Spare Rib, to the reader of 2015, divides in a binary way: some headlines could have been written yesterday: not in the Telegraph, granted, but ‘Women Under Attack: Tories Cut Maternity Leave’ could sit happily in the Mirror today. What timeless articles like these underline mainly is the penalty of motherhood; so much can change, and has changed, in the realm of education, arts, culture, sex and sexuality - what kind of sexual appetite the righteous feminist should have, how women talked about inclusivity, before ‘inclusivity’ was the word. But the vulnerability of the pregnant woman in the workplace? The outrageous knife edge on which the fertile woman exists, supported by political rhetoric only for as long as she serves an electoral purpose? The way transgression is amplified by motherhood, so that mothers are punished doubly for any crime or misdemeanor, and the sheer magnitude of that ramification is then blamed back upon the mother? None of that has changed at all, and reading the magazine with this in mind - especially given its hopefulness, its sense of possibility and the nearness of change - is depressing.

Spare Rib magazine issue 129

Spare Rib magazine issue 129 p. 22

News feature about the Lesbian Mothers’ Conference.

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P. 22. Photograph of lesbian mothers’ march by Jill Posener
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And then there are the articles that are familiar in the way that Hansard debates are familiar, even when they occurred in the 17th century, but you cannot imagine them published today: and here, I think, is the richness of Spare Rib. It will be mined for years to come, since it shows this wave of feminism for what it was: the diametric opposite of the caricatures that built up around it.

From the start, the reporting is bracingly shorn of the convention of impartiality; Anny Brackx describes an industrial tribunal in which Louise Boychuk took her employers to court for unfair dismissal. She had been fired for wearing a badge which read, ‘Lesbians Ignite’.  ‘A desiccated panel chairman fancied himself as God’s judicial administrator’ writes Brackx. ‘A triple-chinned stockbroker consulted a dictionary to find out what a lesbian is.’The prose is bellicose and so lively; it relishes the combat, delights in every moment that clarity of expression is forced upon antiquated views. ‘Aren’t you really trying to encourage people to become lesbians; bringing other women into this cult?’ asked the prosecutor. What’s striking is not that depth of suspicion, of incomprehension, that sexuality could arouse in the establishment (there are probably still judges who think of homosexuality as a cult; that prosecuting barrister may still be practising for all we know). Rather, I am awestruck by the refusal to play nice, the rejection of the quasi-judicial imperative of ’balance’, and how vital that was to the creation of a media narrative that forced change.

Spare Rib magazine issue 054

Spare Rib magazine issue 54 p. 17

Article about lesbian who went to an industrial tribunal for wearing a ‘lesbian’s ignite’ badge to work.

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Usage terms: Issue 54, p. 17, But Not in the Office, by Anny Brackx
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The conundrum the modern media sets itself, in areas that include but are not limited to feminism, is how to challenge the status quo while sounding ‘reasonable’; hysteria and ignorance are the big accusations. Once they have been levelled, that view is said to be ‘discredited’.  The lesson of Spare Rib is one that we would do well to re-learn – viz, that the range of acceptable views is not laid down collaboratively, but by the stronger side. If you want to take on authority, you may have to say things that are unacceptable to it, and what’s more, enjoy doing so. 

Above all, the mood of Spare Rib is confident, and you can read that as much in the acidic humour and the room for doubt, as in direct confrontation.  At some point between then and now, it became so important to feminism not to be seen to hate men - while simultaneously, not to be seen as submitting to men, or fixating on men - that men simply disappeared from the mainstream-feminist tapestry. These pages are full of men, ridiculed in too-tight denim, saluted as comrades, despised for their cheating, their self-protection, admired for their politics (some of them - it goes without saying, not all men).  The condition of being female, meanwhile, is limitlessly examined, the personal always political: a rather shy article about skin care kicks off with an observation that it’s actually rather difficult to combat, with moisturiser, the effects of air pollution.  An exuberant piece starts ‘Look! No belts! No pins! No pads! The Sanitary Protection Racket’.

Glaringly absent from this is squeamishness: the ick-factor that we now tacitly understand to be the condition of womanhood. Without shame, women’s bodies can be discussed in a way that is not oppositional: so a conversation can happen about herpes that isn’t ‘which bastard gave you herpes?’ (‘perhaps it was a bastard’ is the tone, ‘nevertheless, the interesting part is, you now have herpes. Don't we all?’) Women during pregnancy and childbirth might be in conflict with the medical establishment, but tended not to be presented as vying for safety and agency with the actual baby.

Spare Rib magazine issue 101

Spare Rib magazine issue 101 p. 16

Article giving the medical facts and a first-hand account of living with herpes.

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Usage terms: Issue 101, pp 16-18, Living with Herpes by Sue Blanks & Annie Fursland; illustrations by Sue Blanks.
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Indeed, the focus in the first phase of Spare Rib - sexual liberation, reproductive rights, division of labour in the home - tended towards a celebration of sex, a full-throated sex-positive feminism that ceded, when it did, not to prudishness but to different territories. Later issues were more focused on rights and justice at work, partly reflecting the growing importance of the workplace. There seemed to be the perception that one victory, at least, had been won - for women to have a sexual identity beyond that of gatekeeper.

It would be impossible now to fire a woman who wore a badge saying ’Lesbians Ignite’. This is no small victory. Yet elsewhere in the modern female narrative, there is a timidity that the writers of Spare Rib would have found hilarious, and through their eyes, we cannot help but find hilarious again. I find their legacy intoxicating, as much for the bits that didn’t stick as for those that did.

  • Zoe Williams
  • Zoe Williams has been a columnist on the Guardian since 2000 - previously, she wrote a column for the London Evening Standard. She has appeared on various current affairs and discussion shows and written for a load of magazines. She was 2013's Print Journalist of the Year for the Speaking Together Media Awards, 2011's Columnist of the Year at the Workworld awards and is the author of three non-fiction books, Bring It On, Baby, The Madness of Modern Parenting and her most recent, Get it Together.